European Middle Ages
The Peoples

   While the great urban centers were arising in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus River Valley, Europe was a great diversity of cultures, many of which have been lost in the twilight of time. These cultures were tribal, hunting-gathering societies speaking a variety of languages and practicing unknown but infinitely variable religions. The historical period begins in Europe with the exporting of Minoan culture on to the mainland of Greece in the first part of the second millenium BC. Europe at this time is still largely a patchwork of diverse cultures, but the constant migrations of peoples in Europe have introduced a new chapter by this point: the Indo-Europeans. It was these who founded the Mycenean culture in the Mediterranean; this culture, with its eastward and southward orientation, would form the root from which would grow the classical culture of Greece and Rome.

   This, of course, is how we understand the descent of Europe. Europe, however, was a far greater sum than simply the cultures of Greece and Rome. Populated by diverse and frequently migratory cultures, the predominant characteristic of European life in the prehistoric and classical periods is one of multiculturalism, migration, and frequent population disruptions. The classical cultures along the northern fringe of the Mediterranean largely looked to the east and the south for their cultural identity. Although the Greeks identified the land mass they lived on as "Europe," they largely saw themselves as part of a larger cultural group that included Asia Minor, the Middle East, and, to a lesser extent, Mesopotamia and Egypt. The peoples to the north were regarded by both the Greeks and Romans to be completely alien and separate.

   We are, however, deluded to believe that the multicultural period in Europe is unimportant except for the Greeks and Romans, for the world view and social organization of the constantly changing preliterate Europe contributed as much to the European character in the Middle Ages as the classical world did. In order really to understand the nature of the cultural diversity at the start of the Middle Ages, it helps to review the large scale trends that produced these cultures in the first place.


The Beginnings   From about 6000 BC, the nature of European culture changed dramatically. It was about this time that agriculture was introduced into Europe by immigrants from the east and south. Throughout the fifth millenium, this new technology spread all over the face of Europe. What characterizes Europe from this point onwards was a fragmenting of European culture. For before the inroduction of the new immigrants and farming, European culture, as best as we can guess, was relatively homogenous. Starting around the fifth millenium BC, cultures became more localized. This was in part fueled by waves of immigrants both from outside Europe and moving within Europe.

   The two most important of these immigrant groups are named after the artifacts they left behind: the Beaker people and the Battleax period. The Beaker people, named after the Bell Beaker that is found in their sites, were, it seems, a war-like people, for their burial mounds include archery equipment and daggers. Their origins are obscure, but most archaeologists believe that they originated somewhere in Spain. Their language was completely foreign to the languages now spoken in Europe.

   It was the Battle-Axe people, however, that would form the nucleus of Europe to come. Named after the perforated battle-axes found in their sites, these clearly war-like people roared out of the steppe lands of southern Russia all over the face of Europe and beyond. Of all the possibie contenders, it is the Battleax people that seem the most likely candidates for being the original Indo-Europeans. This category, you should remember, is simply a linguistic category with some cultural overtones. The languages that are spoken throughout Europe, along with the Hittite language, Persian, and the languages of central and northern India, are all very similar languages—this similarity led to their being designated Indo-European languages, since they are the languages of Europe and India. It's believed that these languages must have come from a single source, a people that migrated over the face of Europe, the Middle East, and eventually to India. Since there are some cultural similarities between these peoples, it's also assumed that the culture of the original group has leftovers in all the Indo-European peoples.

   Whatever the origin of the Indo-Europeans, the Battle-Axe people quickly spread over the face of Europe through migration—this migration was, it is to be assumed, by force of arms over indigenous populations. By the latter part of the third millenium BC, the Battle-Axe people largely dominated the face of Europe. It was from this migrating population that the diversity of European cultures would spring.

   The economy of central and northern Europe after the influx of the Beaker and Battle-Axe people was agricultural but primarily centered around cattle. Well into the Middle Ages, the primary basis of wealth for most of cental and northern Europe were cows—this persisted in Ireland up until the first millenium BC. This cattle-based economy kept agriculture at more or less a subsistence level—without the production of large surpluses of grain, the formation of large urban centers and highly centralized states was not as easily accomplished in Europe as it was in grain-dominant economies, such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, or the Yellow River Valley in China. The cattle-based economy along with the constant threat of invasion by migrating groups also created a warrior aristocracy among the Neolithic Europeans. Why cattle? The presence of cattle made possible cattle raids in times of shortage—in fact, the great epic poem of the Irish, Táin Bó Cualange (pronounced, "Toin Boe Cwalingne"), is "The Cattle Raid of Cooley." Of all the elements of central European culture, the one with the most lasting legacy in the medieval world was this warrior aristocracy.

   The rise of civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt had consequences for populations in Europe and not simply those ringing the Mediterranean. For both the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations were metal-working powers with unimpressive amounts of raw material for that metal-working. As a result, they turned to other areas of the world for raw materials and Europe became one of those areas. In later history, Europeans would scour the globe in search of metals and other raw materials; in their earliest manifestation on the world stage, however, the Europeans were largely a source of raw materials for more powerful states to the east and the south. Europe was largely a source of tin for these great states; as a result of this trade, however, the peoples of Europe entered the Bronze Age faster and more efficiently than any other world culture. It's important to understand that the Europeans did not develop their culture in a vacuum. As far as Wessex in England, the Europeans of the third and second millenium BC were importing culture and cultural practices from the east and remaking them in their own image.

   The first major culture to emerge after the influx of the Battle-Axe people was the Únetice, located in contemporary Czechoslovakia. The Únetice were greatly influenced by Mesopotamian culture with whom they carried on trade in copper and tin. This trade mediated through the Únetice extended as far north as Scandinavia; even in those remote regions, the culture of central Europe and the civilized East was extending. Following the Únetice, the face of Europe was dominated in the second millenium BC by the Tumulus culture, so named after the large burial mounds, called tumuli, that they used for their dead. Largely because of trade with the east, the Tumulus culture developed strong and powerful chiefs. Finally, the Urnfield culture, or Proto-Celtic culture, comes on the scene at the end of the second millenium BC. This culture rapidly and aggressively expanded over the face of Europe, forcing massive population dislocations, including assaults on the eastern Mediterranean, a heralding of things to come. Most archaeologists believe that most of the major elements of the European cultures had been fully formed in the Urnfield period, including the solidification of the warrior aristocracy and the overall social organization of the peoples. The Urnfield also developed the heavy, slashing sword, as opposed to the small, dagger-like sword used in the Mediterranean and the east. This new technology, which was used like a meat cleaver against one's opponents, made the Urnfield a terrifying force to face. The heavy slashing sword would also dominate warfare in the Middle Ages until the advent of the long-bow in the fifteenth century.

   In 700 BC, the peoples of Central Europe entered the iron age and the first major culture of the time was the Hallstatt culture (named after a site in Austria). This was the first genuine Celtic (pronounced "Keltik") culture in Europe; they were replaced by another Celtic culture, the La Têne, in 500 BC. From these stocks would grow the most important, powerful, and culturally influential people of early European history, the Celts, whose legacy would dominate the whole of the Middle Ages in Europe.

Richard Hooker

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-31-97